On profanity and expression

“Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!” – A Christmas Story

The other day I used a word in a Facebook post linking to this blog that is considered by the vast majority of the English speaking world to be an obscenity. The curse was directed not towards an individual but towards anxiety (or more specifically the anxiety attack that set upon me last week). I expressed, in no uncertain terms, my desire to fornicate anxiety in the figurative manner of dismissal (to put it off, one might say). It was brought to my attention that the word was offensive to some, obscene to others and could reflect poorly on my character and that I need not sully these postings with such vulgarity.

This has me thinking about profanity and expression- whether profanity is ever appropriate and whether it is a useful tool to be employed by a writer and therefore is perfectly suitable for use.

I’m of two minds on this; First of all, offensiveness is by and large subjective, and so I don’t believe in any hard and fast prohibition on language because consensus on offensiveness is unlikely and the constant policing of language is an impossible task. I like what comedian Ricky Gervais has to say on the subject:

You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended.

There is so much more in the world to be offended by than language- simply scan the front page of any newspaper and you’re greeted by murder, rape, theft, abuse of children, corruption and war, Getting one’s knickers twisted over a synonym for feces or the act of procreation seems a bit trite by comparison, particularly as the meaning of words and the weight we give to them depend so heavily on context and  they are constantly changing and evolving.

Let’s agree though for  a moment that in 2014 that f-dash-dash-dash is offensive. It is only offensive because we ascribe to it the very meaning that makes if offensive. When it is used our attention is drawn to it, because it is out of the ordinary from what our custom dictates. In other words, by using it sparingly, we give it importance when it is used. This is why it catches our attention. And to a writer, this is precisely why it is so useful, if carefully employed. It is a tool to draw our readers attention to the point we’re making and give it emphasis and importance.

The danger of course is that overusing the tool dulls it, and makes it less and less effective with every use. Once it loses it’s taboo status it is only another word. So the freedom of speech that allows the writer to dispatch a word must be balanced with the dedication to doing so selectively, so as to preserve the words meaning and heft. 

In conversations and in my writing I do swear occasionally (and may be guilty of not being selective enough with when and how I do). In the particular instance I used the word I did so carefully. My anger and my embarrassment at how I felt that day was powerful and real. How best to express that with regards to such a concept as anxiety? I think everyone who read it knew exactly how I felt, and, because of the word I chose to use to describe that feeling, sensed that this was not a run-of-the-mill annoyance I was describing.

One of my favorite examples of how to effectively deploy a swear word comes from my late grandfather. Several years ago my brothers and I were escorting him down to Florida for a family wedding. His eyesight wasn’t great, he had more of a shuffle than a stride when he walked and it was just easier for him to navigate flights and airports and layovers with some assistance. Now, my grandfather was one of the highest character individuals I’ve ever known. He used phrases like “Gee whiz!” and I had never heard him curse. But air travel being what it is, we were put in the position of running through the Philadelphia airport to make a connection, only to be told on arriving at the gate we had to go to another gate. So we raced back across the terminal, only to be told the flight was delayed.

That was when he uttered “These airlines are so f-dash-dash-dashed up.” It froze me. I was stunned. I never knew the power of cursing until that moment. It seemed as though I had heard everything under the sun described that way before but never really knew what it meant until he said it.

Every writer when employing a swear word should hope that it has that effect on their reader. And while I cannot promise to never swear on the blog again, I can promise that I will endeavor to make sure it’s well thought out and that it is a thoughtful use of the word and the weight it may carry to my readers.





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